After nearly 20 years, the Oakland Police Department has achieved full compliance with all but one of the 52 court-ordered reform tasks. Credit: Amir Aziz

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The Oakland Police Department is closer to completing the reforms it agreed to nearly 20 years ago as part of a civil rights lawsuit settlement.

On Tuesday, Robert Warshaw, the independent monitor who oversees OPD’s compliance with the settlement agreement, wrote in a report to federal Judge William Orrick that the department recently achieved “two of the most critical requirements.”

Warshaw’s report is a sign that OPD continues to make progress, and that federal court oversight might soon come to an end.

OPD was placed under that oversight in 2003 after the city settled the “Riders” case, a civil rights lawsuit brought by 119 people, all but one of them Black, alleging that Oakland cops engaged in a long pattern of brutality and racial profiling, and that some officers even planted drugs on people and wrote false reports. 

According to Warshaw, OPD recently reached compliance with Tasks 2 and 5 of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, the lengthy reform roadmap that must be completed before court oversight can come to an end. 

Of the NSA’s 52 tasks, there were seven remaining for OPD to complete when LeRonne Armstrong took over as chief in February 2021. That summer, the department completed two tasks related to how it investigates use-of-force incidents and police shootings. The completion of Tasks 2 and 5 brings the number of unfinished reforms to three, the closest OPD has ever gotten to checking off all 52 boxes.

“We acknowledge the monitor’s recognition of compliance with two additional settlement agreement tasks and general progress in areas of principled policies,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told The Oaklandside. “Oakland’s leadership remains committed to having the most professional and progressive police department in the country. Our vision of public safety is grounded in a commitment to continual and persistent improvement that meets our community’s highest values and expectations.”

Two more reforms crossed off the list

Task 2 requires OPD to quickly complete investigations of police misconduct to ensure that the city can discipline officers who have violated rules. Under California law, police departments can’t punish an officer if an investigation takes longer than a year. Warshaw wrote in his latest report that OPD’s Internal Affairs Division recently demonstrated that it is finishing the vast majority of its most serious investigations of police misconduct in 180 days or less, the timeline set under the NSA. 

Task 5 requires OPD to thoroughly and impartially investigate all allegations of police misconduct. “In all of the cases we reviewed, we believe that OPD gathered all relevant evidence available,” the monitor wrote following his team’s most recent review of internal affairs cases. His report says investigators worked hard to resolve inconsistent statements by police and civilian witnesses, used body camera videos and other evidence to determine facts, and meticulously documented cases.

“I consider it to be significant progress,” said Chief LeRonne Armstrong in an interview today. “We haven’t been in compliance with these two tasks for several years. The monitor has been clear that these are two of the most critical tasks.”

Armstrong said OPD was able to make gains in these areas by putting the right leaders in place, but also by holding people accountable for completing the reforms, including command staff. “If people don’t get the [internal affairs] cases done, then those responsible for those cases have to be held accountable too,” he said.

The department’s overhaul of how it investigates police misconduct cases closes the loop on an OPD sexual exploitation case that was exposed in 2016 and led to the firing of three police chiefs in a week. 

Before that misconduct was made public, the end of court oversight appeared to be within reach. But in May 2016, it was revealed that multiple OPD officers sexually exploited an underage girl, and other officers continued to exploit her after she turned 18. The department failed to properly investigate these sex crimes and other related misconduct, according to an independent attorney’s report. As a result, federal Judge Thelton Henderson, who oversaw the Oakland Police Department at the time, found OPD in violation of Task 5.

Progress after “backsliding”

By now showing that it can complete its most serious police misconduct investigations within half a year, including deadly use of force, dishonestly, and other offenses that can result in firing, OPD appears to have recovered from backsliding that was widely noted during Anne Kirkpatrick’s time as chief. 

When Kirkpatrick, the former police chief of Spokane, took over OPD in early 2017, there were just three NSA tasks left to finish. But by 2019, the department had fallen out of compliance with four additional tasks. Three of these had to do with how OPD investigates police shootings and other use of force incidents. The reversal of progress was partly related to the fatal shooting of Joshua Pawlik in 2018 and Kirkpatrick’s decision not to terminate the five officers who killed the 23-year-old. In July 2019, the monitor observed that OPD was no longer completing police misconduct investigations in the required half-year timeline.

“The department has made remarkable progress under [Chief Armstrong’s] leadership,” said Jim Chanin, one of the attorneys who sued the department in the Riders case and helps oversee the required reforms. “It does appear as though the beginning of the sustainability period, after 19 years, is actually in sight.”

But Chanin said his biggest concern is whether or not OPD will be able to police itself after the federal judge and monitor leave. “The number one issue that worries me is that OPD has never discovered a major scandal, incident, or problem on their own, and then reported it, and adequately dealt with it,” he said. “All the major scandals, starting with the Riders case itself, were discovered by outside sources and brought to OPD.”

Chanin said he doesn’t expect OPD to be perfect, and that some problems are to be expected of any big organization, but what matters is that the police show they will deal with these issues transparently and proactively.

For OPD to finally get out from under court oversight, the department will have to complete the remaining three NSA tasks and then show that it can sustain these reforms over the period of one year.

Armstrong said he feels confident OPD is already in compliance with one of the remaining three tasks that requires OPD collect and analyze data to reduce racial disparities in stops.

Judge Orrick will hold a hearing to consider OPD’s progress on April 27.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.